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Published Thursday, January 21, 2016

SweetGreen: An Interview

Founder Jonathan Neman

Life is off to a fast start for Jonathan Neman, who founded the SweetGreen salad chain with two of his classmates nine years ago after they graduated from Georgetown University. Neman recently bought a New York City apartment with one of his co-founders for $3.4 million. They also have homes in New York City and Los Angeles. Neman spoke to the Journal recently.

Jewish Journal: What is the mission of SweetGreen? Jonathan Neman: To make eating healthier easier.

JJ: How did you develop the concept?

JN: It’s something that we wanted for ourselves, so it seems we were just at the right place at the right at, at the front edge of a generation that just wanted something different in food and from brands. We had this visibility into what our customers wanted because we were that customer.

JJ: You seem to be growing fast. You added ten stores this year?

JN: Nine. And we plan on opening 20 new restaurants in 2016. We opened three stores in California last year, and we hope to open more in California this year, and we’d like to continue to lead the charge become the first national healthy fast food brand.

JJ: Are you surprised how hot your idea seems to be?

JN: When we started, we read a lot of studies about how fast this segment – healthy fast food – was growing. Now that’s its moving from a niche to mainstream, I don’t know that I’d call it surprising, but it is very exciting.

JJ: Wouldn’t it be much easier to make each restaurant identical like most chains do?

JN: Food is a very emotional experience. For us, when we started out, the brands and chains we liked most were ones that were intentional about everything they did. It fits the same philosophy that we apply to our food – the food is sourced locally, so the design should also have a local flavor. It’s just real. We want to break the norm that fast food means the food is the same everywhere. We wanted to create the first food brand where the brand stands for change.

JJ: Do you think healthy fast food is the future of fine dining?

JN: As I grow older, I realize the one thing we can’t get more of is time. People have always had to sacrifice time and money for healthy eating. To be able to create a healthy food that’s both affordable and something that you can do quickly, I think it’s really a special thing - to give people back time to do what they really love.

JJ: I was surprised to see people of all ages, not just Millenials, at SweetGreen. What’s your target demographic?

JN: The concept was created for us (the founders) when we were just 22 year old, but the way we think about our consumers is really much broader. We actually don’t talk about demographics, we talk about a mindset. We call our customer a conscious achiever – someone who cares about their body and what impact their spending habits have on the larger community – and the conscious achiever spans many demographics. Those demographics do vary somewhat, though, by their location, but we’ve seen the range broaden over time. You stop in our stores today and it’s a very diverse group of people – the male female mix is right down the middle now.

JJ: You have to prepare so many food items. Is the food prepped by outside vendors?

JN: Everything is done from scratch, and it’s all done in store everyday. We have no commissaries, all the vegetables are brought in whole, they’re washed, chopped, roasted – it’s all done there. When people ask why does it taste this way, it’s because of that. That’s why we showcase this and we’re now doing open kitchens so everyone can see us doing our food prep. People eat with their eyes, so we wanted to show the art of the food being made.

JJ: Do you see yourself doing this for a long time.

JN: I’ve just hit 31, and I find myself very fortunate to have my passion and my interest aligned. I don’t know what else I would do.

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